A diverse collection of weapons was laid out at the George Town Police Station on 11 June – the results of a four-week gun amnesty programme put on by the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service in attempts to take firearms off the streets.
Six handguns, three rifles and four shotguns were recovered.
Then there was the homemade pistol made out of wood with electrical tape wrapped around the handle.
“There’s probably about as much safety in that for the user as there is for the intended victim,” Police Commissioner David Baines said of the makeshift weapon.
Among the collection, there was also a flare gun that had been modified to fire handgun ammunition, four pellet guns (classified as imitation firearms under the Cayman Islands Penal Code), an air rifle, a bow-and-arrow set, a crossbow, a canister of tear gas and a taser pen (electric shock weapon).
Baines seemed pleased with the weapon-take.
“I could pick up any of these and put them to your head and say, ‘Which one do you want to gamble on?’ And the answer is none of them,” he says. “Even the pellet guns can be turned into deadly weapons.”
The total of 26 weapons collected is a relatively small number of those available on Grand Cayman, and what cannot be known is how many illegally held firearms currently exist in the Islands. The commissioner estimates that at least half the weapons rounded up during the month-long amnesty had some kind of “illegal connectivity” to them.
For instance, one of the 9mm handguns turned in during the amnesty had its serial number scratched off.
“That gives you a clue that it’s not here for a legal purpose,” Baines says. “These are exactly the type of weapons that we’ve had young men being killed with. And at some stage (the 9mm) has been stolen or someone intended it not to be tracked back to its owner.”
“How many of these (weapons) have been used in crime? Certainly, I’d say 50 per cent of them have some illegal connectivity or suggestion to them.”
According to police estimates, the number of legally owned weapons in the Cayman Islands far outweighs those held illegally.
“How many are held illegally? We don’t know,” Baines says. “What we can say is that it’s nowhere near as many as people would think. If that were the case, you wouldn’t have the same guns being passed between gang members. They would all have their own, wouldn’t they? But that doesn’t happen.
“They wouldn’t be required to make a hand-made thing, or indeed to moderate a flare gun to fire a section one firearm ammunition.”
Baines says he feel comfortable stating that there are between 1,100 and 1,600 legally owned handguns and shotguns at any given time. All private weapons owners must apply to import their guns – there are no firearms dealers on Cayman – as well as apply for a firearms licence or shotgun owners’ permit.
Those licences are typically good for three years and must be renewed with the police service each time they come up.
Some gun owners in the Cayman Islands have often complained about getting tripped up by red tape when they apply for or seek to renew their firearms licence. They have also stated their beliefs that police are well overestimating the number of firearms that are legally held in the Cayman Islands.
RCIPS statistics provided to the Observer on Sunday under the Freedom of Information Law appear to bear out at least some of those claims.
According to police records, there were 289 applications for firearms renewals processed between January 2007 and March 2010. The vast majority of the renewal applications were approved, according to officials with government’s Portfolio of Internal and External Affairs.
Between January 2008 and January of this year there were 30 new firearms applications granted and 18 denied.
“There are no accurate records that can be relied on in respect to new firearms applications prior to 2008,” the RCIPS response to the Observer’s open records request stated.
Moreover, the firearms application form the police have been using is not contained in any version of the law or regulations. It also makes requirements of applicants that are not contained in the Firearms Law (2008 Revision).
The 2009 version of the firearms restricted users application requires permit seekers to have “two letters from prominent persons in the community” such as doctors, lawyers, MLAs and the like. No such requirement is contained in the text of the Firearms Law.
A letter from the Agriculture Department is required if the firearm application states the weapon is to be used for hunting. A letter from the Cayman Islands Sports Shooting Association is required if the firearm is to be used at the Grand Cayman firing range, according to the police forms.
According to a March decision by the Cayman Islands Complaints Commissioner, however, Cayman’s top cop can make unilateral changes to firearms applications forms.
Police changes to firearms applications, importation and renewal forms were disputed by a local resident who claimed in a letter to Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams that the police commissioner was allowing firearms applications forms to be published that “please(d) him instead of the law”.
According to firearms applications forms reviewed by the Caymanian Compass, there have been several changes to the initial application document set forth in the Firearms Regulations (1999 Revision).
In forms published last year on the RCIPS website, there were several requirements for firearms applicants that are not set out in the regulations.
Also on the newer forms, applicants are required to declare that they have not been convicted of a criminal offence “anywhere in the world at anytime”. They also agree to give RCIPS officers the right to inspect at anytime the safe where a weapon must be kept.
These declarations are also not required in the 1999 version of the application forms contained in the regulations attached to the current law.
At issue in the complaint was whether the legal authority fell to the police commissioner, the governor or the Cabinet to change regulations in the Firearms Law.
That law (2008 revision) states: “The governor may make regulations for the better carrying out of this law and, in particular…for prescribing anything required or permitted by this law to be prescribed.”
According to definitions given in the law, “governor” means the “governor in Cabinet” or all members of that body, not the governor acting in his sole discretion.
Commissioner Williams noted that the current law was a bit unclear with regard to firearms applications forms.
“It would appear that the appropriate authority would be either the governor or the police commissioner, perhaps devolved down from the former to the latter,” she wrote in a letter dated 9 March, 2010.
By allowing the forms to be changed without altering the regulations in the law, Ms. Williams stated that the police commissioner had not “ignored his duty of care to the public” as the initial complaint in the case had claimed.
“These requirements [in the firearms application], whilst arguably more restrictive on gun users/owners, put in place better safeguards for members of the public,” Ms. Williams wrote. “[If] there is a concurrent duty of care to gun owners/users that must be considered, then this has to be weighed against the duty of care to the general public.”